To use the current lingo of the kids, this episode of the Teacher Voice podcast is LIT! Considering this is episode “42”, I knew I wanted to sit down with my great friends, Art and Rob, who are English teachers at my school. We talk about why we love literature, its value in today’s day and age, as well as some of our favorite authors and poets. Please listen and share with other teachers or fans of literature in general.
Thanks again for listening, everyone, and have a great week!
“I feel strongly that people need to speak up because silence is a tacit approval.”
The first official new podcast of 2019 features Lois Horn-Diaz, the 2017 Teacher of the Year for Polk County Schools. With her wide and varied background, Lois taught children in many ways for over 30 years in public education. We sat down at the beginning of the month to discuss how she became a teacher, what it was like to win Teacher of the Year honors for an entire district and meet others from around the state, and why she is such an outspoken critic of what public education has become in the last 15 years. Please listen to this engaging conversation, be sure to share with others, and use your own voice to speak up on behalf of all children and educators across the Sunshine State.
Contrary to Sean Combs’ claim that “it’s all about the Benjamins,” I would argue that life is all about relationships. As teachers, we have relationships with lots of people in our daily school lives, none more important than with our students. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bulk of my success as a teacher is due to the meaningful and lasting relationships I have fostered with my students, certainly much more so than any curriculum I may have imparted to them during our shared time together.
While I only worked as a new teacher mentor for a single year, the two most important pieces of advice I offered those who were just beginning in the classroom–whether fresh out of college or starting a second career–was: 1) be your most authentic self, as kids–especially high school students–recognize phoniness better than most adults; 2) get to really know your students as individual human beings. By taking a genuine interest in them, their journeys up to that point in life, and where they’re headed based on their goals and aspirations, teachers can forge a strong, important bond with that child. As I told my mentees, the rest will always come with time and work itself out provided that they put those two pieces of advice into practice.
I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days because of two messages I received almost back to back. Over the years, I have received many nice notes, letters, cards, and emails expressing gratitude for our relationship. And what I’ve learned in the first 15 years in the classroom is that we never know how our words and actions will resonate with our students, which is why I always do my utmost to be an exemplar of a life well lived. I was deeply honored and grateful, then, to receive this short essay on leadership from a graduate of last year’s class who is currently at the United States Naval Academy. While she could have written about virtually anyone and how that person exemplifies leadership, she chose me. Her words were truly humbling:
In my junior year of high school, I was required to take a course known as the Theory of Knowledge. This class was a introspective curriculum which mainly focused on self-reflection and relies heavily on the teacher’s interpretation and dedication to the class. It is in this class that I saw one of the purest forms of leadership within the teacher. Mr H. was new to the program and thus took on a large amount of responsibility in order to enable our success.
I would argue that the majority of my enjoyment within the class stemmed from Mr. H’s ability to spark an intense curiosity and passion within all of his students. It was not through overbearing demands, but rather a nurturing of individual abilities. One of the most important traits that I learned through H was to listen, even when you didn’t always know how to respond. Compassion never fails. The ability to sympathize and lend an ear can often be more powerful than one’s own words. As an especially exasperated high school student, H’s ability to listen to the complaints of fifty teenagers and still make everyone feel like an individual proved unique.
Besides listening, a good leader understands when intervening is necessary. Obviously, the public school system does not stand as the pinnacle of premier education. Unlike most people who just accepted the flaws of a large structure, Mr. H continued to seek new ways to reform and better the environment he was in. From interviewing other teachers on a podcast, to speaking his grievances at school board meetings, H understood the need to take a stand. This determination to better his community at a large scale and still treat people as individuals was contagious. Most often leadership is done first through example.
At the purest form H never stopped showing how much he cared. How much he cared about people, knowledge, work, and life. These traits have greatly impacted how I approach situations, as well as my interactions with others. Through him I saw someone devote themselves to others, which in the end, defines leadership.
Then, only a day later, another former student from my time at Durant tagged me on Twitter to tell me the following:
I responded to him to thank him for his kind words as well as to share that I do indeed remember him. By my rough estimation, I have taught over 3,000 students at this point in my career. I may not be able to remember all of their names (especially those that were from more than a decade ago), but I often recognize their faces despite the years that have passed. Regardless, these small blessings are one of the many, many reasons I love being a teacher.
My wife and I do not have children, and that is a big reason why we truly love our students as if they were our own kids. I believe that love infuses our classroom and the interactions we have with all students, which is why I consider the relationships we build with them so critical for their future success. Being a teacher is an important job, but being good toward other human beings who are sharing this sojourn with us through this space in time, who have been given the same gift of life that has been bestowed upon each of us, is the pinnacle of what it means to teach. Regardless of a student’s grade average or mastery of content, it’s how we treat them with an inherent dignity that will forever resonate with them. As Maya Angelou famously said, “…people will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel.”
Let’s ensure that our students feel loved.
P.S. – And, as always, if you are one of my current or former students reading this, thank you for being a part of my life. All of you mean the world to me.
Friday afternoon I had the good fortune to speak to my middle brother Brad for over an hour and a half after school. He is a busy world traveler who works as a high level executive for one of the world’s major technology companies. He and I are alike in many ways, although our professional lives diverged when it came to what we chose to do.
But he is deeply committed to education, whether providing one for his own children, sharing his knowledge and expertise with the people on his team, or constantly learning himself, he thinks a great deal about what education is and what it will become in the future.
Our conversation largely revolved around what will happen to education when machine learning/artificial intelligence can supersede our own cognitive abilities. What will we “teach” our students then? Brad then sent me this short two-minute clip of Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba, sharing his vision of education in the future.
Every teacher I know laments what public education has become: a non-stop testing regime that has largely sucked the life and joy out of education. People my age and older had the good fortune to “learn how to learn” for lack of a better phrase. With tests and “data-driven instruction” being the hallmark of today’s education—all in an effort to demonstrate what a student “knows” (or perhaps how well a student “tests”)—we’ve created a rather inhumane system in which teachers and students are the central components of a commodified, monetized education machine.
What happens, however, when machine learning and AI become more advanced than us? What will education look like when computers can “know” anything instantaneously, make calculations faster than any human, or anything else that machines can (and will continue to) do better than the most intelligent, most capable of us?
Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba (China’s Amazon, basically), believes that we need to educate our children about what makes us human—to be creative, to think critically, to empathize with others, to work collaboratively—and get away from teaching “knowledge” for which machines will inevitably have far more computational power than any of us.
While I might not see this radical shift during my tenure/career as an educator, I think I’ve been doing some of this in my own classroom for the last 7 years at least: focusing on the human experience; trying my best to exemplify love, compassion, gratitude, generosity, and patience; genuinely caring for each and every student who becomes a part of my life; inspiring kids to love learning intrinsically/for its own sake; using mindfulness techniques to manage stress while being in tune with one’s own mind…the list goes on and on, but it is these soft-skills that are far more important than the “facts” they can look up on Google at any given moment by consulting their smartphones.
Having slept on it and thought about this challenge all day yesterday–and as much as I love the ideas put forth by Jack Ma–I don’t think he’s completely right (or at least his comments don’t provide enough nuance for the entire educational experience). While I would concur that education fundamentally needs to be about teaching kids how to learn, adapt to and thrive with change, as well as focus on what makes us inherently human, there is still a place for some fact-based knowledge.
Here’s Ken Jennings of Jeopardy! fame to share why (it’s cued up to start at 7:16, but the whole talk is worth watching):
As a teacher of the capstone course for the International Baccalaureate program, Theory of Knowledge, I am fortunate enough to teach the kind of class that Jack Ma talks about: one that instills the value of conceptual and critical thinking while constantly asking “how do we know?”
Knowledge is tricky and complex. It is dynamic and we can never know anything with absolute certainty. And while Jack Ma has a clear / important point about fact-based knowledge being important in our world for the last 200 years since we started compulsory public education in the West, I agree with Ken Jenning’s point that the bits and pieces we carry around in our heads (in TOK we call this “personal knowledge”) is critical for our own self-identity and our shared cultural heritage.
Hopefully the future of education falls somewhere between these two views. Either way, the future of education is perhaps a return to the past: a time when we didn’t incessantly test our children in the name of accountability and to make a quick buck; a time when we focused on educating the child how to be human rather than a machine that simply produces particular outputs based on the bubble sheet in front of him or her.
Teacher Voice is seeking guests to either write short posts (500 word limit) about current education issues or to discuss them in person for the biweekly podcast. Interested? Fill in the form on the Contact page or email directly at email@example.com